Eliminating Obstacles to a Healthy Ministry

How should we deal with those characteristics and flaws that Satan can and will use to keep us in bondage and even despair? Here are eight steps to healing and deliverance.

by H. B. London

For me to address a subject that relates to the health of someone in ministry is difficult because it is necessary to be honest about my life and the missteps I have taken.

When I think about why some of our colleagues behave the way they do, it is also necessary to point a finger back at myself and ask, “Why did I behave the way I did?”

First, we must look at our childhood. I am not a psychologist, but I am a keen observer of those who lead the church. Many pastors enter the ministry as a result of some dysfunction in their formative years.

Personal Dysfunction

I did not go into ministry because of my dad’s failure, but the fact I came from a pastor legacy and was the fourth generation in my family to enter full-time service could have influenced me. But my dad’s misadventure did have a lot to do with my reaction to those in authority. When Dad failed us as a family, I decided I would never give anyone else the chance to hurt me that badly again. But the truth is, I did. I kept giving him the chance to hurt me over and over.

The residual of our relationship was that I rebelled at authority and did not trust many people. When one gets into that spiral, it is difficult to change one’s thinking — or at least it was for me.

I still battle the temptation not to trust people, and at other times to minimize their motives. I think I can spot a phony a mile away; but, because of that, I find myself looking for phonies rather than giving people the benefit of the doubt.

I also have a difficult time with clergypersons who see themselves as prima donnas or better than others. I think of the one whom Jesus said came to the altar and prayed, “God, I thank You that I am not like other men” (Luke 18:11). The response Jesus gave was, “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled” (verse 14).

I think of the hypocrites Jesus encountered. They were guilty of doing what they did for attention rather than to glorify God. They prayed loud and long; gave offerings so people could see their generosity; and basically made a spectacle of themselves. Remember the words of Jesus as He condemned their behaviors, “They have received their reward in full” (Matthew 6:2). Jesus admonished, “Do not be like them” (verse 8).

Many times in my ministry I have been cynical and judgmental. At times I could not help myself. And besides, many times I was right in my assumption even though I was wrong in my behavior. You see, my dad was my hero until he let me down; and, when he did, I decided not to have any more heroes. If you do not have heroes, you do not have role models. If you do not have role models, you are left to your own understanding of what is proper behavior and what is not.

Who is your hero? Why is he or she your hero and how has this person impacted your life? Or, whose hero are you, and how are you impacting that person’s life?

Unrealistic Expectations

Another reality we must deal with is the expectation level we face every day. The bigger-and-better syndrome pervasive in the church world creates a type of dishonesty all of us must avoid. Somewhere someone gives us the idea that our responsibility as a clergyperson is to build the church, to succeed, to even overperform, and to be the best.

Most of us will never live up to the expectations of many. We will labor along in the world of the if onlys until we come to a place that says, “What’s the use?” That is a sad commentary on the ministry as a whole. God wants us to be the best we can be, but even the best we can be will not be as good as someone else’s best.

Even though God knows that and accepts our best, we inwardly become dissatisfied with who we are and wish at times we were someone or somewhere else. We delve into the shallow world of competition with colleagues. Rather than look God in the eye and say, “Okay, You know me, You created me, You are aware of my gifts — what can we do together to bring blessing to Your church?” At times we resent the God who created us, and others who might have an advantage because of their uniqueness or giftedness.

If you are going to live and die in the world of others’ success or failure, you will always be dissatisfied with whom you are and what you have accomplished. As a result, you will not be easy to be around, ever blaming others for your unhappiness, and moving from one unsatisfying experience to another. That will take an emotional toll on your family, and your ministry will always be on the defensive rather than the offensive. You will look at what you did not achieve rather than what you did.

I believe in the turf concept. Here is what I mean. Because God knows us so well, He has a plan for our lives and ministry that is realistic. He knows what we can do, and He attempts to give us every opportunity to succeed, so He gives us turf.

What is turf? It is that small or large piece of His world in which He wants us to invest. For some of you that turf is huge — thousands of people, millions of dollars, great responsibilities, and competent support. For others it is a much simpler assignment, but just as significant. Perhaps it is a few people, humble surroundings, and a lot less visibility, but no less important in God’s equation. He has given you responsibility for your turf. The two of you become partners. As Neil Wiseman and I say in our book, The Heart of a Great Pastor, “Bloom where you are planted.”

Do not waste your time making comparisons with another person’s turf or belittle how God has assigned you. Bloom to His glory. Thank God for your turf. Seek His guidance, and humbly go about the challenge of building the body of Christ.

Dysfunctional Churches

There is another foundation for our negative attitude that most of us can identify with, and others have been victimized by — dysfunction in the local church. I wrote a piece in my weekly column called The Shepherd’s Covenant Encourager entitled “Addressing the Church’s Dysfunction.”

“I spent time recently with a pastor of a dysfunctional church. The chances that he will survive there are slim. It was my privilege to stand alongside this pastor in helping lead his congregation back to unity and into a deeper walk with the Lord. Only time will tell if our mission was successful.

“I had another pastor say, ‘If I was not the pastor of this church, I know for sure I wouldn’t attend it.’ The truth is, a lot of clergypersons would echo that pastor’s sentiments. Question: What are we going to do to turn that trend around?

“Some say it will take a revival. Can you define revival? For me, revival is the body of Christ in renewed obedience to the will of God. Others say we need to change the church’s polity (government). In other words, let the pastor’s fate be in the hands of fewer people rather than a whole congregation. Still, there are some who say the problem in the church today is that we have a tendency to mirror society rather than society mirroring the church. I do know that our consumer-driven society does carry over to the church.

“I hear from my colleagues who say that, in a small-to medium-size church, you will always be dealing with the power structure — and, most of the time, that base is resistant to change. And most of the churches in America are small to medium in size.

“So what is the answer? I am no expert on this, but after reading Paul’s first and second letters to the Thessalonians, I am convinced the body of Christ must respect its clergy, live in peace with one another, feed the flock of God, avoid evil, be joyous, and be careful not to put out the Spirit’s fire (quench His workings).”1

Later I received a response to my column from one pastor who said, “I have been a pastor here for over 6 years. Our church is a small (dysfunctional) body. Your words in the Encourager hit me today. I have seen God move in this church through prayer and felt Him strengthen me through the Holy Spirit. Last month we had a huge victory in that the church replaced two divisive members of the board. I have been attacked on many counts by these board members for things as small as the grammar in my sermons to my tithe to the church. I could run off 10 more attacks.”

No one said ministry will be fair, but our attitude will be key to survival. Some of you reading my words are serving in a dysfunctional church. You do not feel respected, your congregation or board does not give you opportunity to lead, and you sense your weekly sermons fall on deaf ears. In other words, you do not see much progress.

What does this do to you? For starters, most of us have been there. You begin to doubt yourself. You begin to blame others for your situation. You lose sight of God’s vision for your ministry, and you draw up in a defensive posture that not only excludes your family, but resists God’s overtures of assistance. You can become immobilized and depressive, and you place your good mental and moral health in jeopardy.

I work with a lot of pastors who allow things that happen in their dysfunctional church to dictate their behavior and attitude. All of us are products of our surroundings, but that is the devil’s strategy — to catch us with our heads down, thinking we fail because we cannot control certain outcomes. We judge ourselves as a result of sin in the house. But that is God’s responsibility. Our condemnation of the carnal minded will simply add to our discomfort. Let God be the judge. Hold your head up. Be humble. Do the best job you can do and like someone said, “Do not let them see you sweat — but rather let them see you in earnest prayer.”

Personal Sin

One other area we must address is the issue of sin. We do not like that phrase associated with those who wear the cloth, but it is reality. At Focus on the Family when we respond to the calls of troubled clergy, there is nearly always an area of anger or resentment that comes to the surface. We seem to forget the very straightforward Scriptures that identify dangerous attitudes that can hinder our effectiveness and lead to sin. Hear the apostle Paul, “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another” (Colossians 3:12,13). Quite a contrast to what we see attributed to the sinful nature described in Galatians — hatred, discord, jealousy, and selfish ambition (Galatians 5:20). We must not allow those things to define our personality and ultimately our ministry.

So realistically, how should we deal with those characteristics and flaws that Satan can and will use to keep us in bondage and even despair? Things like (my definitions):

Judgmental — An opinion or estimation of another person.

Cynicism — A tendency to be suspicious of motives and virtues of others.

Fear — An emotional reaction to the unknown; a reluctance to trust.

Control — A need for power over others and circumstances to dominate.

Jealousy — Envious of another’s success, position, possessions.

And the list can go on and on.

Let me remind you.

First: We must be willing to own our issues. We need to stop blaming the church, our leaders, the board, or even our family. It is what it is. Like one church member said to me when I was complaining, “Just suck it up. You knew it would not be easy.”

Second: We must examine our lives. Even pray the prayer of the Psalmist in Psalm 139:23,24: “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” If there is a reason to repent, then repent. He will reveal your infirmity. Listen to God.

Third: We need to invite one or two other clergy into our lives and openly discuss our feelings, fears, and insecurities. A person who is wrapped up in his own pain cannot see clearly how to get out of the situation. We all need help.

Fourth: Be willing to apologize. Just as anyone caught in a situation where he had been unfair or highly critical, an apology is in order. A heartfelt expression that you are sorry you have had your negative thoughts and hurtful expressions will prove cleansing for you. There may also need to be an apology to your family and colleagues for becomeing so distant and hurtful. No more negativism.

Fifth: Pick yourself up. Dust yourself off. Do not live in the past. Whatever you do, stop beating yourself up. You are a creation fearfully and wonderfully made. God anointed you. He appointed you. He assigned you. And He enables you to accomplish the task before you. Do not live your life looking through the rearview mirror.

Sixth: Start encouraging your colleagues. Look for the best in others; and, when they succeed or reach a plateau of excellence, celebrate with them. God wants us to work as a team to His glory. Have a list of clergy you stay in contact with. Check in with them frequently and be like Barnabas — “an encourager” (Acts 4:36).

Seventh: Let God be God. He knows your situation. He is aware of your past and even your frailties. He is not intimidated by your challenges, and He eagerly desires to work with you through the inevitable realities. As the apostle Peter quotes from Proverbs 3:34: “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (1 Peter 5:5). Peter then writes, “Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that He may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on Him because He cares for you” (verses 6,7).

Eighth: Now that you have considered the steps to healing and deliverance, help someone else. Use your story as an example of how even one of God’s anointed can struggle with conflicting emotions and reactions, and then share your journey to victory.

In my book, Pause, Recharge, Refresh, I wrote a devotional entitled, “Walk Humbly With the Lord.” I end my time with you with the following.

“There are parallels between baseball great Barry Bonds and the many pastors I have dealt with who have tainted their reputations and minimized their ministries.

“The first is that Barry Bonds was a great ballplayer before suspicion of his use of steroids arose. Most pastors I meet are gifted — without taking shortcuts or playing too close to the line.

“The second parallel is a spirit of pride. Bonds is arrogant. I have never understood why some clergy I meet are prideful. Why would you be? Yet, I see it all the time. ‘Look what I have done. Look how big we are. Stop and serve me,’ their persona seems to say. Why? Is it not God who gives us our talent and places us in the area of ministry that will bring Him the greatest glory?

“The parallel is a tendency to forget those who have helped us achieve and have stood by us. If you are like me, there are very few days that pass without your thinking about the many influencers in your life.

“My point: Walk humbly with the Lord.

“ ‘So if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!’ (1 Corinthians 10:12).

“ ‘When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom’ (Proverbs 11:2).”2

We can live healthy, productive, positive, and effective ministry lives, but we must be vigilant because there are always challenges we must meet and address in the power of the One who called us. Stay healthy, my colleague.